Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Newbery Post

I’ve gotten more emails about my previous post, Patrick’s Summer Reading Blues, than any post I’ve ever done. It seems I touched a nerve! The responses ranged from “You’re being too harsh on Newbery books” to “I can’t believe you had the courage to say something about the Newbery. Thank you!” Several simply said, “Amen!”

I try not to rant too much. Honest! Doubtless the post was fueled by my frustration as a parent who wants his child to love reading. This was compounded by my years in the classroom and my experience with some (not all) Newbery titles.

When it comes to children’s literature, I tend to be a populist. My primary concern is youth literacy. What will appeal to the most children? What will get them reading? What will inspire them to pick up more books? A book that can do this is, to me, a “best book” for children. If the book has levels of meaning, beautiful writing, great characters, a haunting story – that’s all wonderful and important. But will children enjoy it? Will they stick with it long enough to recognize those literary merits adults care so much about? If the answer to these questions is no, then I have a problem with that book.

I remember reading some decidedly mixed on-line reviews of a recent Newbery winner. Many of the book’s most ardent supporters said something like this, “This book has great literary merit. While it’s true children may not like it, older teens and adults will love it, and –” At which point I thought: Whoa, wait a minute. Children won’t like it, but you’re arguing that it deserved to win a children’s book award? What is wrong with this picture? Hopefully, the book’s supporters were as off-base as the book’s detractors. Hopefully some children will like it. But perhaps this particular Newbery title is not the sort of book that should be made required reading for all students. Unfortunately, since the Newbery is the “gold standard” of children’s literature, this is often what happens. Perhaps, you may say, the problem then is not the award books, but how we use the award books in the classroom. I would not disagree with that. But how do we change this? How do we change the conception that the only books worth reading, the only ones worthy of prestigious attention, are the hard ones very few children like? To paraphrase Mark Twain, “literature is the books everyone agrees are great, but no one has read.”

Since I left the classroom, I’ve been a volunteer reading tutor at a local elementary school, working one-on-one with at-risk second graders who are struggling with reading. In a way, this has brought me full-circle, since I began my teaching career working in public schools in the poorer districts of San Antonio. I’ve spent about half my career in public schools, half my career in private. I’ve seen a huge range of student ability. As I do school author visits, I go everywhere in the country. I do presentations for Title I schools struggling with teen parents and gangs and extreme poverty. I do presentations for the most elite private schools in the country. When I think of children’s literature, I see the thousands of faces of all those children. I see my eight-year-old reading buddy at Cable Elementary. And of course, I see my own sons, both of them reluctant readers, despite what their dad does for a living. I care about books that will get them excited about reading – that will light up their faces and make them think, “Wow, reading can be fun after all!” To me, that’s a “best” book!